Governor of Colorado, 1975-1987
on developing denver
BLUEPRINT AMERICA: You are not from Colorado. When did you come to the state? What was it like back then?
GOVERNOR DICK LAMM: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and I was stationed in Colorado in the Army in 1957. I went to Berkley, to law school, and came back permanently in November 1961 – and I didn’t know a soul. Right out of the University of California I had passed the bar, but Colorado was one of those places where anybody could come and nobody would ask what your background was or how long you had been here. So I took to the place with a liking.
I remember Denver – the air looked like it had a bunch of little sparkling diamonds in it, when the sun was just coming up or going down. It was a wonderful little town. It certainly lacked certain cultural advantages, but the mountains were fresh and near – I loved the outdoors always. It was a wonderful mid-sized town in which to plant your roots.
BA: When did the state begin to change?
DL: In about 1962, my wife and I went up to Boulder to buy a couple of cats, and the Boulder Turnpike was one of the most beautiful roads in America. You could see Longs Peak and the whole mountains there in the background, and it had this pastoral countryside. And all of a sudden, I noticed somebody had placed a very unsightly building and it never entered my mind that they would develop along the Boulder Turnpike. It was just my naïveté, but I remember thinking how incongruous it was. It was almost a desecration to put a building on the Boulder Turnpike, which is now US-36 and is almost backyards and even junkyards all the way up.
We didn’t have to put development just cheek to jowl all the way up to Boulder. There’s enough room in Colorado! But we did.
BA: When did you become involved?
DL: It was only a harbinger, just when the initial insight came – it was years later before I was in any kind of position. It was, when I really think about it, my first time into the state capitol in Denver as an unpaid lobbyist for the Women’s Garden Clubs fighting against billboards. I was very concerned about the unsightly nature of how we were designing our cities, how we were designing our roads.
BA: But, what was wrong with that design then – what is wrong with it still?
DL: I think that the whole way that we do this – where you build a road to alleviate traffic and that road has development, sprawl and so much growth. You just never can get on top of it. You roll the rock to the top of the mountain and is just rolls back right down on you.
Roads are necessary but the fact that we don’t fully recognize that when you build a road you’re doing more than building a road – you’re building the future development of your city. And, that’s what’s never dawned on people. It still doesn’t, in a way.
BA: Denver – and the entire Front Range of Colorado – never did recognize it, did they?
The Denver Post in 1971 said in California they invented Los Angeles, but we don’t have to do that here. Los Angeles was the first and what happened in Los Angeles you can argue that, well, they didn’t know any better. But in Denver we should have had the wisdom – and the foresight – to look at Los Angeles, and think that we can do better.
And so [my wife and I] ran this big ad in the paper. We didn’t have a lot of money, I was a young lawyer, and we put a little coupon down on it and said if you believe in this cause, send us some money. Well they sent us enough money to run two more ads and then we got enough money to run one more ad and we just kept doing this. I was in the legislature at the time, actually. I really was starting to get involved in land use planning, but I felt so strongly about this, that nobody was debating the future of Denver and how it was connected to roads.
BA: And then, all of a sudden, you were Governor of Colorado…
DL: Once I tried to kill the highway – and thought that I had successfully killed the highway – the whole world came down on my head. The I-470 decision – this was my first year in office and it was not skillfully handled on my part.
The Denver Post, as I recall, ran over 30 editorials, many times, day after day after day about this new, young governor that was standing in the way of progress. It was very intense. I didn’t have support, even of my own party. I remember going out to a meeting of the Arapaho County, which is south of us and one of the places that sprawls – down to Arapaho County Democratic Party, here I was, a newly minted governor and they were very unhappy. I really just fought back. I said you have to have vision when you’re developing. We are trustees of a beautiful place called Colorado, and called the Front Range, and called Denver, and if I’m not right here, then you tell me, how do we not become another Los Angeles? They didn’t buy it.
BA: Was it your failing as a young Governor – not stopping the development of I-470?
DL: I think it’s because I poorly handled it. I think the chief reason that I was unsuccessful was I was very heavy-handed – I was also unilateral. I take a lot of the responsibility on myself.
Having said that, it is amazing to take on the real estate industry. It is even more amazing to take on the combination, what we call the highway lobby – which is the auto industry, the repair shops and gas stations – and all of the economic interests that are related to highways and have invested in highways. We really have to remember that to this day, most of the millionaires in America achieved their wealth through the real estate business. I really kicked the economic back-end of the business community – probably a bad way to put it, but I kicked the real estate industry and they fought back, and they won.
BA: And, as a result, Denver became another Los Angeles?
DL: Sprawl is the American ideal way to develop. I believe that what we’re developing in Denver is in no appreciable way different than what we’re doing in Los Angeles – did in Los Angeles and are still doing. But I think we have developed the Los Angeles model of city building and I think it is unfortunate.
You go to Europe – and you go to other places in the world – and the cities stop, and then there’s agricultural land and there’s beautiful land around it. There’s a whole different thought process here, where people look at land as a commodity – no sense of trustee-ship, no sense of stewardship about the future of this area. It’s only in economic terms – it’s only in how do we grow bigger and better.
The bible says that ‘woe onto them that lay field upon field and house upon house…’ And I feel that’s exactly what we’re doing. This is the Los Angeles school of city building.